Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

This is one of those books everyone is supposed to have read, but I certainly never had. It's very powerful because he talks in detail about the realities of slavery, some of which I had never contemplated. Most disturbing was the fact that so many slave owners would get their female slaves pregnant. Frederick Douglass was most likely the son of his master, and that let him speak first hand of the horrors of what that means. Not only does it mean being ostracized by other slaves for being lighter, and being hated and punished by that master's wife, but also being treated worse than the others by the master because he wants to show that he is not giving any special treatment. He talks at length about the less obvious horrors of slavery, some of which gets deep into interesting human psychology. Observations about how the more religious a slaveholder is, the crueler they are likely to be are thought-provoking, as was his discussion of the nature of the Christmas holiday in slaveholding households, where slaves were encouraged to get drunk to the point of extreme discomfort so that returning to work seems more comfortable, coming away with the unconscious message that one is better off not being free. I particularly liked his tales of how he learned to read, and how the fact that his master forbid him learning to read served as a primary motivator to actually do it. One thing I thought was very clever was that after moving to the city, he would make friends with free white children, and challenge them to writing contests, learning from them in the process.
Eventually, he tells tales of attempting to escape, but unfortunately, when he does actually escape, he doesn't share details of how it actually happened, because he doesn't want to incriminate those who helped him. Maybe he tells that story in another of his works -- I wonder. Regardless, the thing that makes the book great is the frankness and the details. Reading it, it paints a clear picture of how barbaric life was just a few generations ago, and makes it hard to understand how slavery could have lasted so long.

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